Making music with integrity

The cultural wasteland conjured by Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, one wedged between the terrors of Nazism and Stalinist repression, could be the one lurking at the back of pianist Afrika Mkhize’s mind. This dystopian world, though, isn’t one presided over by apartheid’s mandarins who monitored jazz and its practitioners; it is one lorded over by house DJs and record companies.  

The effect is, in both cases, harmful to the sound Mkhize describes as “music with integrity”.

When I met Mkhize this week, the 2012 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year had just returned from Basel, Switzerland. He had used the city as his base to tour, among other cities, Bern and Geneva.

“There is respect for music and musicians there. Here musicians are almost like second-class citizens,” he complained.

Skvorecky’s preface to his novella The Bass Saxophone (1977) is about the period when Prague was under Nazi occupation, during World War II, before it fell to the Soviets with the defeat of Adolph Hitler. Under the Nazis, all jazz — “Judeo-Negroid music”, according to Joseph Goebbels — was banned.

In an edict, Goebbels said: “Now I shall speak openly, quite openly on the question of whether German radio should broadcast so-called jazz music. If by jazz we mean music that is based on rhythm and entirely ignores or even shows contempt for melody, music in which rhythm is indicated primarily by the ugly sounds of whining instruments so insulting to the soul, why then we can only reply in the negative.”

When I sat down this week with the 32-year-old pianist and arranger at a coffee shop at Northgate Mall, he was in the company of his toddler son, Kwame, whom he had brought along to the interview.

Before he jetted off to Europe, Mkhize had played at the Mahogany Room, the jazz venue co-owned by the cultural trio of Kesivan Naidoo, Lawson Naidoo and Lee Thomson.

“Cape Town is more serious about jazz. It has a lot more musicians, while Jo’burg doesn’t have enough platforms,” Mkhize said.

Industry battles

When I asked him what he thinks about the local music scene he replied forlornly: “I work in my studio; I don’t go out a lot. There is nothing much that I find exciting. In the 1970s and 1980s the popular music scene was cool, thereafter …” His voice trailed off. 

Then he started berating the music industry: “I don’t want to be part of the industry; I want to be part of the music. The recording industry shouldn’t have that much power over the arts and the artists. Such people should stay away from me. There are so many talented artists that are [not being given] chances. Record companies are run by lawyers and business people,” he added.

So I asked him how, practically, he would bypass the recording industry, whose tentacles stretch out everywhere.

He replied, philosophically, that, “before there were recording companies, there was music. If you are ­serious about your music, you’ll have to find ways of getting your music out. We have to reinvent ourselves and make use of the internet.”

Mkhize pointed out that instead of mortgaging oneself to a record company, musicians had to approach, say, a family member or an investor to invite them into their projects as investors. “That way you have control over your product.”

As the recipient of the Standard Bank award, Mkhize has been spared this slog. “I am very fortunate that things are going to be much easier for me.”

He is luckier than his peers who have to teach, work with DJs and generally scrounge around for bread. (Mkhize composes music for television and he does arrangements for the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and its Cape Town equivalent).

The jazz accolade has opened ornate doors for the pianist. At the end of this month, he will play at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown together with Briton Eddie Parker on flute, Chris Engel on saxophone, Shane Cooper on bass and Ayanda Sikade on drums. He will also play at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Johannesburg in August.

Sweet sounds

One of the Grahamstown concerts is going to be dedicated to his hero, the late pianist Bheki Mseleku. “I have been listening [a lot] to Bheki and he influenced how I play.”

His other influence, according to an interview he did with Standard Bank on winning the award, was the sugar-cane workers he encountered when he was growing up.

“As a child I grew up in a village called Mbumbulu. Most of the elders in the village were in the sugar-cane business and they hired workers from the former Transkei. The music that was sung by these workers has, to this day, never left me.”

Between 2005 and 2009, Mkhize lived in Paris and jammed with West African musicians. He wasn’t playing jazz; it was mostly Afro-pop.

About that period, Mkhize said: “It was almost like I had to learn music from the start. Those guys were patient with me,” he recalls.

The Nazis described the jazz form as “the ugly sounds of whining instruments” whereas the communists saw it as the “moaning in the throat of a camel” or “the hiccupping of a drunk”.

Our record company executives aren’t this imaginative with words.  They would probably say, prosaically, that this music doesn’t make money. But the consequence is the same: it is to mute the blast of the trumpet, to cut the strings of the double bass and break the keys of the pianos.

Afrika Mkhize will play at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Website: nationalartsfestival.co.za

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
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